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In atoms we trust

india Updated: Aug 06, 2007 01:51 IST

When US Senator John Kerry visited India in early 2006, he asked Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh what the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement was all about. Singh replied, “To build trust between our countries.”

Only those unfamiliar with the antagonism that developed between the bureaucracies of the two largest democracies will be surprised. The Indian nuclear establishment, the victim of nearly 40 years of sanctions and harassment, was pathologically suspicious of the US. Many US foreign policy types, in turn, dismissed Indian foreign policy as an alternation between Soviet sympathising and Third World whining. After the Cold War, whenever attempts were made to break the Indo-US ice, there would always be those in both countries who would ask, “Why should we go out of our way for Them? What have they ever done for Us?” The governments of PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee both shadowboxed with the US. They tried to go beyond phrases like “natural allies” and define a genuine strategic relationship with the US.

Vajpayee’s national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra, successfully persuaded the Bush administration that the way to win the hearts and minds of the Indian elite was to secure the country a nuclear club membership. “Mishra sold the nuclear deal to us,” remembers one US diplomat. Mishra’s legacy survived his government, K Natwar Singh took up the baton and today it rests in Singh’s personal cause.

When Singh and US President George W Bush announced the nuclear deal in July 2005, they laid out a grand bargain. India would agree to separate its military and civilian nuclear programmes. The civilian side would be internationalised, safeguarded and become eligible for desperately needed nuclear fuel and technology. The US would sell this special nuclear status for India to the US Congress and the wider world.

Western critics argued that the US was doing all the heavy lifting, while India went along for the ride. But as Singh can testify, this doesn’t take into account what a wrench this represented for his peers, most of whom placed the nuclear programme in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple of national sovereignty. Few were more suspicious than the temple’s priests: India’s nuclear scientists.

As a consequence, the text of civilian nuclear agreement includes a number of small swaps and a host of hedge investments. India insisted on insurance clauses in case the US turned sour on the deal a decade or two down the line. The scientists had reason: the US had double-crossed them on the Tarapore reactor fuel agreement in 1974.

One smaller swap was that if India ‘civilianised’ a reactor and placed it under international safeguards for perpetuity, well then it would require an assurance of international fuel supplies — also in perpetuity. This trade-off is explicitly stated in Article 5c of the text of the recently released 123 agreement, detailing the nature of Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation.

This was the crux of the ‘nuclear testing’ issue that still excites so many in India. New Delhi understood that if Pokhran III happened, US law required Washington to rip up the cooperation agreement and take back all the nuclear material it had provided. Mind you, this applied even to close US allies like Israel or Britain.

That wasn’t India’s concern. The furrowed brows were over a Futurama of dozens of Indian reactors all suddenly running on empty as the US took back its fuel rods. Hence the layers of clauses to make it more difficult for the US to invoke this ‘right of return’. The real meat, however, lay in making the US write down that it would not stop other countries from providing fuel. Now Russia and France can cite Articles 5.6 and 14.8 of the 123 agreement and step into the uranium breach. A prediction: India will initially buy only a handful of US reactors and fuel rods, further ensuring the ‘right of return’ clause is a dead letter.

A similar tale revolves around India’s insistence on the right to reprocess. This was also based on a fear born of the past rather than a genuine concern about the future. “Reprocessing was about trust that both sides don’t quite have at this stage in the relationship,” said one US diplomat.

This story goes back to India’s still-under-construction breeder reactor. India’s nuclear boffins were suspicious about putting their breeder under safeguards. The US does not have breeder reactors and they feared intellectual property larceny. Slightly paranoid, but 40 years of harassment can do that to you.

The breeder, however, will need a small mountain of fissile material to make its engine roar to life sometime in the next two decades. If the nuclear deal works, India will have scores of new reactors, each churning out spent fuel rods that could be added to that fissile material stockpile. But fuel rods coming out of a safeguarded reactor are civilian and can’t be used to fuel an unsafeguarded breeder which could, in theory, be military.

Thus the reprocessing debate. The US rightly said you can’t reprocess safeguarded fuel rods whose ultimate destination is an unsafeguarded breeder. India has plans for a future breeder under safeguards, but made the pragmatic compromise of offering to build a new safeguarded reprocessing facility. The US, in turn, extended to India reprocessing privileges in principle. In effect, the US granted an intangible right for a process that India may do in a hypothetical plant. Even if India began building such a facility today, says Anupam Srivastava, non-proliferation expert at the University of Georgia, “it would take 10 years before reprocessing became an option”.

These are exactly the sort of ‘what if?’ clauses that clog the 123 text. Many are the equivalent of a line in an insurance policy against a meteorite falling on one’s head. Stuff like the US would not interfere in India’s strategic programme or that if the US cited a safeguards violation it would be arbitrated by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In the end, such clauses were compensation for the trust deficit between India and the US. If the Indo-US relationship takes a primrose path, much of the 123 agreement will be just words, sound and strategy, signifying nothing.

This makes it remarkable that the 123 is so brief. William Stratford, one of the negotiators in the US deal team, described the 123s that the US signed with the European Union and Japan as “inches thick” but admits that the Indian 123 was the toughest to negotiate. The brevity is partly because the Indo-US deal postpones the writing of a lot of the fine print. Both teams of negotiators were determined to finish the deal before the Bush administration demitted office. So the goal, especially for the Indians, was to extract a principle upfront.

Says Ashley Tellis, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, “The agreement permits India and the US to cooperate in the nuclear field for the first time since 1974.” Thirty-three years of suspicion wiped out by “two years and two days” of negotiations, at least on paper.

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is Bernard Schwartz fellow, Asia Society, New York